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Regional Strategy of Ashgabat

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The Central Asian issue has taken one of the key places in the foreign policy agenda of the world community since the collapse of the USSR. Such characteristics as "highly explosive", "unstable", "complicated" have become common in discussions about the present situation and prospects of the region. Although the same characteristics could be applied to a number of places in the world from South America and African South to Balkans and Indonesia, Central Asia is one of the focal points the global politics that includes newly born independent states of the former Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, northern part of India, eastern part of China and south-eastern regions of Russia. Many great powers, international political, economic and financial institutions have focused their attention on the region due to Central Asia's geopolitical location, vast natural resources, ethno-cultural and religious features and history. The role and place of Central Asian states and how they understand their responsibility in facing new challenges of the time and, therefore, ensuring that their policies serve true interests of the region are of particular importance in light of these circumstances. Such conformity could be the only objective criteria of viability of the foreign policy of any Central Asian nation, apparently, if the point is about real politics and not about momentary benefits. Turkmenistan sets a vivid positive example in this regard. Turkmenistan's policy has been making a serious positive influence on the regional situation for a decade now.


The Turkmen foreign policy was formally born at the 1992 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Summit (now known as OSCE - Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Helsinki. At the summit Turkmen President S. Niyazov for the first time declared positive neutrality as a principle direction of the foreign policy of a new independent Turkmen state. The principle of neutrality includes the following: respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations, non-interference in their internal affairs, non-use of force in interstate relations, priority of UN decisions in international relations, establishing and strengthening cooperation with all nations and, above all, with regional nations. Although President S.Niyazov's statement was positively accepted by the world community, it was, nevertheless, considered just a political declaration at that time. Turkmenistan had strictly followed the principle of positive neutrality for three years before Turkmenistan's neutrality was officially endorsed by the United Nations in December 1995. It gave Turkmenistan a legal and moral right to offer itself as a place for settling regional conflicts. An internal conflict in Tajikistan (1995-1996), which could develop into a full-fledged civil war and pose a real danger to regional security, taking into account involvement of third nations, became a touchstone for Turkmenistan's peace-making mission. The well-known Tajik politician and diplomat, Akbarsho Iskandarov, who served as ambassador to Turkmenistan at that time, wrote:

"As is known, the Tajik government headed by Imomali Rakhmonov and our friends looked for a long time for ways out of the deep economic and political crisis in Tajikistan. We held a number of negotiations in Tehran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Moscow. At one moment, however, there was a deadlock when opposing parties were not able to find a consensus. The opposition sometimes refused to negotiate in this or that country, saying host nations were pro-Tajik government. The Government of Tajikistan also refused to negotiate in other countries, saying host nations were pro-Tajik opposition. Exactly at this difficult time for Tajikistan, Ashgabat, gaining international authority day by day, offered itself as a place for negotiations between official Dushanbe and the United Tajik Opposition. Both sides immediately accepted this offer. Turkmenistan, keeping a neutral position, created all favorable conditions to make these negotiations successful. The negotiations were vital for the Tajik nation. Turkmenistan provided accommodation, technical means, computer equipment, transport and etc. We held two more rounds of negotiations in Turkmenistan later. During the negotiations opposing parties adopted mutually acceptable agreements on the ways to settle the inter-Tajik conflict. The most important thing was that we agreed on ceasing fire and any hostilities. Thus, the Ashgabat talks broke the ice of mistrust and enmity and got a long negotiation process closer to a successful end. The negotiation process dragged on due to a number of principal disagreements of opposing parties.

Peacemaking experience of Ashgabat was appreciated by the United Nations. In spring 1999, the UN suggested that the Turkmen government organize negotiations to settle another conflict, this time in neighboring Afghanistan. Two Afghan warring parties held talks in Ashgabat under the UN aegis and through the mediation of the UN Special Envoy on Afghanistan Mr. Vendrell, as a result of which the parties reached some important agreements, including on truce, transportation of humanitarian aid to suffering Afghan people and international aid to refugees. According to experts, the negotiations in Ashgabat helped prevent humanitarian disaster and avoid loss of Afghan people at that time.

The humanitarian mission of Turkmenistan in Afghanistan continued even after the fall of the Taliban regime. Turkmenistan became a key country in rendering assistance to a war-ravaged economy of Afghanistan. Ashgabat also helped in rebuilding Afghan social infrastructure. Turkmenistan started delivering electricity to northern regions of Afghanistan three years ago. It provides electricity and heat to thousands of people. Under Turkmen-Afghan Intergovernmental agreements signed in 2002, Ashgabat granted a quota for free of charge education of Afghan students in Turkmen universities and institutes so that they could learn professions that are in great demand in the neighboring country.

Turkmenistan plays an important role in rendering humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. About 40% of the aid coming from the UN and other international organizations is being transported through the Turkmen territory. The neutral status of Turkmenistan doesn't provide for using its territory for transportation of the armed forces and military cargo. Turkmenistan, however, permitted to use its airspace for efficient transportation of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by the aircrafts of the Anti-Terror Coalition Forces.


In the beginning of autumn 2002, President Niyazov put forward a new regional initiative. The initiative was to establish a multilateral mechanism – a Central Asian Consultative Centre at the level of heads of states, which, according to its high status, would make it possible to efficiently solve all regional issues between heads of states without too politicized and sometimes excessive formalities. A principally new point of this initiative was that it envisaged inclusion of "former republics of the Soviet Central Asia" as well as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan into the Centre. The last three nations were included due to their common geopolitical, economic, historic and ethno-cultural ties forming one integral territory with their common trade-economic, energy and transport interests. Such regional issues as the threat of terrorism, drug-trafficking and transnational organized crime are also common for them. The actual task of the Center is to bring into accord these interests and help in overcoming problems, old phobias and stereotypes. That is why the initiative of Saparmurat Niyazov was warmly welcomed by regional states. The Centre was not formally established, but Ashgabat had sent a signal and it was soon heard not only in the capitals of regional states but also in the Headquarter of the United Nations. The establishment of the Centre was on the agenda of the official visit of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Turkmenistan. The initiative to establish the UN regional center for preventive diplomacy in Ashgabat that was fixed in a "large" Turkmen-Uzbek agreement signed during Saprmurat Niyazov's visit to Uzbekistan last November and supported by the world community, was a logic continuation of Turkmenistan&'s efforts in that direction. This regional structure is under construction and one can surely believe that the notion of "Great Central Asia" will have a different political meaning - a region that uses models of non-confrontation in interstate relations, where states would be able not only to prevent conflicts but also combine and harmonize their interests. The role of Turkmenistan in this process is quite obvious.

A logical question may arise as to why Turkmenistan, "protected" by the internationally recognized neutral status and by the authority and power of the world community from outside dangers, would spend a lot of time trying to find some new configuration of regional relations? Would not it be easier to adopt a role of supplier of oil and gas to the world market and use this advantage solely in the national interests? President Niyazov answered these questions in his article "Strategic partnership in the name of ideals of peace and humanism" recently published in "UN Chronicle" magazine:
"Having secured international recognition of the status of permanent neutrality, we, first of all, established favorable conditions for realization of national interests. Turkmenistan's neutrality is not a shell to protect us from threats and troubles of the world at large. On the contrary, it is a strong position to actively influence the situation in the region and in the world as a whole to promote effective international cooperation, which is an important factor of internal economic development in present conditions. Today, the role of countries and their leaders as well as big international organizations is as important as never before, for it is they who are responsible before present and future generations for strengthening and developing positive trends in the establishment of a non-confrontational and non-violent world system. There is an urgent demand of life to build bridges of cooperation wherever is possible and not to create barriers between countries." These words explain the essence of philosophy and criteria of the foreign policy strategy of Turkmenistan in the "Great" Central Asian region, within the framework of which Turkmenistan uses its huge hydrocarbon reserves.


There is no need to prove that it is the domestic and interstate stability that will allow Central Asian nations to become an attractive region for foreign investments that will help carry out large-scale energy, transport, communication projects of continental significance and enjoy other related advantages. There are also inverse relations - carrying out such projects could itself give a push to stabilization processes for it will solve a number of political, social, economic, international issues that sometimes serve as a catalyst to conflict situations in the region.

That is why Turkmenistan's gas strategy is being built on the basis of objective political significance of the routes of future pipelines without any artificial politicization. It means that no one loses in the scheme "country producer - transit country - consumer country", and it is clear that every participant will benefit economically. According to experts, the Trans-Afghan gas pipeline alone, designed to deliver gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and further to India through the Afghan territory, will allow Afghanistan to earn tens of millions US dollars already at the first stage of the pipeline's operation and create minimum twelve (12) thousand jobs. There is no need to explain how it is important for Afghanistan, with its economy destroyed by the protracted war and total unemployment. If the pipeline is extended to India to connect such nations as India and Pakistan, it will also have a stabilizing effect and bring mutual economic benefit. It is not by accident that during the recent visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to New-Delhi this issue featured on the agenda.

Ashgabat believes that outlines of the regional security along the line South-North, East-West and the outlines of the future belt of stably developing states lays along the route of future pipelines. In this sense, Turkmenistan's initiation of construction of multi-vector pipelines is not simply beneficial commercial projects but strong ties that would connect states and push them to look for ways of cooperation on other issues, throwing off predilections for the sake of their long-term objective benefits and advantages.

The orientation of the Turkmen economic strategy in the region could be described as follows: shifting from unilateral control over the sources of raw materials and means of delivery to their multilateral use. This not idealism. It is clear today that following the rules of the notorious "Great Game" in Central Asia in the XXI century adopted from the foreign policy arsenal of the end of XIX century is not only vicious but dangerous. It is not just because of the fact that it could lead to unpredictable consequences as a result of next clash of great and large nations but also because regional countries and nations don't wish to play a passive role. They want to realize their potential independently and be equal partners in the world affairs due to the last decade developments and their own needs. These global processes leave no room for the notion of "world periphery" on the world map, in particular with regard to Central Asia.

In fact, there is no alternative to cooperation in the region. It is being understood well in the capitals of the states with traditional interests in the region which, by the way, have never been challenged by Ashgabat. It is no mere chance that the initial jealous attitude of Russia towards projects on construction of alternative pipelines initiated by Turkmenistan has changed into Russia's readiness to participate in these projects. Partnership relations between Turkmenistan and Russia are taking real shape because Moscow benefits greatly from this partnership than from primitive blocking of Turkmen gas access to the world market through other routes, not northern route. The Trans-Afghan project could make a solid contribution to the cause of building stability in the region which is of vital importance to Russia. One could give anything to make it happen.

Washington also supports constructive efforts of Turkmenistan in the region. There can be seen a clear understanding of the need to strengthen that fragile peace and stability secured over the last years. That is why it is believed that Turkmen-American cooperation in Central Asia will be continued in the future. It is exactly the situation when cooperation does not contradict the interests of the third countries involved in regional politics, for it is based not on ideological predilections but on the common sense, pragmatism and aspiration to own and global security.

As for the Central Asian nations, one could see that Turkmenistan managed to establish good neighborly and equal relations with the newly born independent states of CIS as well as with other regional states such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India over the years of independence. Relations between these nations are not so simple, but their interests have never clashed on Turkmen soil.

Summing up our attempt to analyze the short history and present day of the Turkmen foreign policy, one can clearly say that Turkmenistan has found its own independent way of development or even special vector of behavior in this complicated bunch of realities that exist on the territory called Central Asia. This vector faced misunderstanding, sometimes jealousy in the beginning, which, in fact, is common when something new and original emerges, especially in such conservative field as foreign policy. In the end, however, on many occasions, the initiatives and steps taken by Turkmenistan and its president broke a fence of doubts and skepticism and convinced partners, close and far neighbors, in their constructivism and objective benefits for the region. At the same time, Ashgabat is not excessively altruist or idealistic. It doesn’t take on Messiah clothes or strive for pseudo-leadership. The strategy of Turkmenistan is based on its own politico-diplomatic capabilities and economic power in terms of huge natural resources and their maximum use to create favorable external conditions to carry out programmes of domestic development. These programmes can't be fully carried out if isolated from regional processes and without constructing a solid basis for cooperation and stability in Central Asia.

Sergey DUBROVIN, Politologist
Turkmenistan Monthly